When the first Europeans came to what is now North America, they found peoples skilled at not only surviving in this land—but thriving. Flash forward a few centuries and the situation couldn't be more different. In most indigenous communities today, self-sufficiency has been replaced by dependency on imported food and frighteningly high levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
In a 2012 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, wrote that Indigenous peoples in Canada have a history of political and economic marginalization, and this has severely damaged their quality of life. Nearly 60 percent of First Nation children in the province of Manitoba don't get enough to eat, while 70 percent of those living in Nunavut faced food shortages. De Schutter says this is a shocking six times higher than the national average.
But thankfully, the practice of food sustainability is gaining momentum, particularly among Indigenous peoples and communities. Everything from chicken-rearing and sausage-making to bison sliders served out of an Indigenous-owned food truck.
Meet just a few of the people working to reverse history and regain control of the foods communities eat:
Joshua Dockstator — Mohawk, Hamilton, Ontario
“A lot of people are starting to embrace food trucks, it’s not just a fish and chip truck or a lunch truck at job sites,” says Joshua Dockstator. “It’s actually a place to go and have a good meal and good quality food.”
Imagine trying a wild boar bacon BLT, bison sliders or a pulled venison sandwich for lunch. The Big Chief food truck is now proudly serving the streets of Hamilton, Ontario and surrounding areas. As his first business, it was important for Doxstador to honour his late grandmother while doing it. “I was looking for a way to still have that connection with her,” says Doxstador. His beloved grandmother Reta Doxstador passed away a year ago, but before she did, she instilled a love of food and food preparation in Dockstator.
With a small inheritance from her estate, he opened a food truck business in one of Canada’s hottest markets for mobile eats.
His grandmother and mother taught him the basics; next, he added a traditional, yet contemporary twist to Indigenous cuisine. “It’s been a family affair,” says Doxstador. His wife takes care of the advertising and social media, while his mother and sister work inside the truck.
“The response has been overwhelming.” He’s been selling out since he’s been opened. “People are going crazy for it, they love the game meat. I thought I’d have to convince people to do it.” As the seasons change, Doxstador will revise his menu. He is looking forward to making a cold strawberry soup to serve to his customers.
Big Chief food truck
Leon Simard — Anishinabe, Manigotagan, Manitoba
Meet Leon Simard, from Manigotagan, Manitoba and member of the Hollow Water First Nation. For the last three years he’s witnessed an awakening among First Nation individuals and communities. “The people are really, really keen,” says Simard. Simard works as a food security coordinator for the province of Manitoba. He travels to 63 First Nation communities to teach everything from community gardening, greenhouse construction to raising backyard chickens.
“People were stressed, they were playing Farmville and then they got chickens and they realized they have to play Farmville for real,” laughs Simard. “It’s like an awakening thing.”
Simard noticed people becoming healthier and not taking their usual medication because of gardening. His work also takes him inside the schools. “It’s sometimes their first time seeing seedlings and potting things,” says Simard about First Nation children. “Especially with the youth, once they start getting their hands in the mud, it just takes off.”
Communities such as Peguis, Popular River and Cross Lake are just a few of the champion communities. Popular River now has six greenhouses and the Peguis First Nation will be hosting a farmer’s market this summer at their annual fair.
“It’s about utilizing what you got,” says Simard. “There’s so many reserves that I drive through—especially Manitoba—they’re located in agricultural areas and then you realize you’re on a reserve.”
Growing up, Simard remembers his late-grandmother having chickens and a garden. “It brings back memories when I’m traveling, especially with chickens,” says Simard. He also recalls everyone in Manigotogan tending to a garden. Now, he is just happy to revitalize food sustainability. “It reminds me a lot of the old Indian Agent days; here I am with my gardening supplies encouraging them to be in agricultural,” chuckles Simard.
Greg Powless — Mohawk, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory
“I can live off the grid if I want to,” says Greg Powless referring to his garden, back-up generator and water supply.
He remembers as a young boy hovering over an uncle tending a garden passed down from his late-grandfather.
Pictured: Powless' tomatoes. His cold frames contain about 200 plants each.
He made sure to pass these skills on too. “I’ve been teaching my kids how to survive off the land,” he shares. For Powless, the key is to become self-sufficient. It goes back to an Iroquoian prophecy for him—a belief that the world economy will collapse, forcing people to live off the land in order to survive.
After experimenting with modern garden methods and realizing the ground was getting worn out, today Powless uses what his ancestors may have utilized. “I went back to the old methods, the old Iroquoian methods that looked at companion planting, at enrichment—the three sisters,” says Powless. This is about planting food that works well together.
Using a square foot method (growing food in boxes), Powless can begin planting in March and grow up to 200 plants a year, having a total of 18 boxes of food. He also has a potting shed to grow mostly greens under lights. The food is not only for his family, he gives a lot of it away.
Powless also created store houses, something the Iroquois have done to store food during the winter months. In the fall, Powless will pick all the carrots and bring them into a cold cellar storing them in sand. “There’s enough moisture in the sand to keep them fresh,” he says. “They are good until February.” He’s planted herbal medicines for a while, but he knows the land will naturally provide them for him. For Powless, being with the land is healing. “I always found a connection…that connection to the land is in me, it’s in a lot of people.”
Food Security in Nishnawbe Aski Nation
Food sustainability efforts are even reaching into rural Indigenous communities. The ‘Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Get Growing Project,’ a two-year pilot project funded by the province, spearheaded several food sustainability initiatives in northwestern Ontario.
“They actually preserved enough food in a community for three months, if there was a crisis or if food couldn’t be brought into the community,” says Wendy Trylinski, a community program manager at the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, referring to a northern First Nation community that participated in the project. She said, it raised the dialogue about food security for that community. “People can actually take action and address it on their own.”
Arlen Meekis from Wawakapewin collects vegetables from Squash Queen Farm.
The NAN Get Growing Project involved everything from gardening, chicken rearing, canning to sausage-making. Trylinski said the project has even helped people to lose weight, maintain their diabetes and create a special space for the young. “Children used to come in and visit her and they thought it was a safe place to be and talk to her about their day,” says Trylinski about a First Nation woman’s garden.
Although the project has come to a close now, 49 Chiefs of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation are currently developing a food sovereignty framework with their community members to continue the engagement and to address the need. First Nation communities also took it upon themselves to see past ‘Get Growing.’ One community will be building a learning barn for school-age children to teach them about food sustainability. Another community launched a good food box program. “Every two weeks they [the community] brought 55,000 pounds of food in 2012 and marketed it through a non-profit structure so people are only paying the true cost,” says Trylinski. “I think certainly the challenge is dealing with remote communities and connecting them with each other to share knowledge,” says Joseph LeBlanc, community project coordinator with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. But through videoconferencing, First Nation members will be able to come together to learn more about gardening with an experienced organic farmer.
For the last four years, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation has held an annual food symposium. This year’s event, July 23-25, will focus on traditional medicines and youth engagement.